After three years of roiling the waters in United States-Soviet relations, some in the Reagan administration have apparently come to the realization that its approach might be leading to a dead end.
The Reagan team has gone as far as it can with a strategy that combined a rhetorical blitz and a defense buildup to face down the Kremlin.
The administration is trying now, it says, to rechannel the embittering forces of the past three years into a more constructive framework. Extraordinary patience and persistence may be required.
The Soviets in Stockholm, given the globally televised rostrum, struck back with words for Mr. Reagan's previous stinging castigations. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko accused Washington of ''reckless crusades and tagging illiterate labels on entire countries and peoples.'' ''Those who have embarked upon a course of war are not interested in reaching (arms) limitation agreements,'' he said. The US aim ''is to acquire military superiority over the Soviet Union, superiority of the NATO countries over the Warsaw treaty countries through a massive buildup of nuclear armaments.''
The Soviets did not have to rouse themselves to this public rebuttal. They've been telling US allies, as one Western diplomat recounts it: ''There's no way for us to deal with this administration at all. We simply have to wait it out.''
Administration officials assure these columns that there is a new seriousness of intent to talk with the Soviets, to get the talks back on track. They say relations are not all that bad, compared with Cuban missile crisis days. Trade, notably of grain, continues. So do lower-level talks.
And yet the conviction grows in Washington that the US will have to offer some kind of concession to the Soviets. Possibly a ''working group'' adjunct to the adjourned strategic arms negotiations proposal could be accepted by Moscow. Including British and French arsenals in the talks, as the Soviets have wanted, could become the price.
The Soviets can see that the Reagan administration has made no changes in personnel as well as in policy, to suggest a new earnestness. In the Pentagon, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the State Department, and among the White House speech writers, they see the same team in place that gave them three years of public drubbing from Washington.
They see, too, that Mr. Reagan is getting very little support from the Republican establishment. What GOP leader is sticking his neck out to praise the President's rhetorical confrontation with the Kremlin? In 1981, after Senate Foreign Relations chairman Charles Percy went to Moscow and reported that he found the Soviets interested in dealing with the US, he was not exactly treated well by the White House for asserting himself. Republicans running for office this fall may on balance see Mr. Reagan well positioned to lead the party on economic issues. But they are uncomfortable about foreign policy as their Achilles' heel under a Republican administration.
The fact is, Mr. Reagan is the leader of the policy that produced, on the US side, this week's flare-up in Stockholm. This implies that he must be the one to shift his view, restructure his staff, or bear the responsibility for holding course.
Some of Mr. Reagan's friends abroad, like former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, are openly unhappy about Reagan's Soviet policy. It's not that they disagree with viewing the Soviet Union as ''an evil empire.'' Nor do they worry about the administration's emphasis on military strength. It's Reagan's ''management of strength'' that troubles them.
Whatever George Shultz comes up with from his private talks with Mr. Gromyko, to many of America's friends Mr. Shultz was the supplicant in the exchange.
The Soviets, from another perspective, have some things going for them in the world. In the Middle East, Lebanon pursues its almost anarchic, pathological course. With Soviet backing, the Syrians continue to raise, in their talks with Washington, nettlesome issues like the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and abrogation of the Lebanon-Israeli agreement, as well as seeking a broad Syrian say in any Lebanon settlement. The security situation in Central America continues to deteriorate. To others, instead of a hemispheric ''success,'' the dispatch of the Marines to Grenada appeared a desperate act. The Soviets are working very hard on the Chinese. The conservative government in West Germany shows unease over the lack of any negotiations.
Patience, indeed, and not bluster may be needed by the White House to restore civility to relations with the Soviet Union, not just for 1984 but for the next four years of potential GOP presidency as well.